30.THE RUBY PRINCE

Once upon a time a poor man was walking along a dusty road, when he saw something sparkling on the ground. On picking it up, it turned out to be a small red stone, so, thinking it somewhat curious, the man put it into his pocket and went on his way. Later he came to a corn-merchant’s shop, at the side of the road, and being hungry he thought about the red stone, and taking it out, offered it to the corn-dealer in exchange for a meal, as he had no money in his pocket.

Now, the shopkeeper was an honest man, so, after looking at the stone, he told the poor man to take it to the king, because he said, ‘all the goods in my shop are not its equal in value!’

Then the man carried the stone to the king’s palace, and asked to be shown into his presence. But the prime minister refused at first to admit him. Nevertheless, when the man insisted that he had something beyond price to show, he was allowed to see the king.

Now the snake-stone was just like a ruby, red and fiery. Therefore, when the king saw it he said, ‘What do you want for this ruby?’

Then the man replied, ‘Only a pound of flour to make some bread, for I am hungry!’

‘No,’ said the king, ‘it is worth more than that!’

So he sent for 1,000 gold coins from his treasury, and gave it to the man, who went on his way rejoicing.

Then the king called his queen, and gave the jewel to her to look after, with many instructions for its safe keeping, for, said he, there was nothing like it in the whole world. The queen, determined to be careful, wrapped it in cotton-wool, and put it away in an empty chest, locking the chest with double locks.

So there the ruby snake-stone lay for twelve long years. At the end of that time the king sent for his queen, and said,’ bring me the ruby. I wish to satisfy myself that it is safe,’

The queen took her keys, and going to her room, opened the chest, and, lo! The ruby was gone, and in its place was a handsome young man! She shut down the box again in a great hurry, and thought and thought what she had better do to break the news to the king.

Now as she thought, the king became impatient, and sent a servant to ask what the delay was. Then the queen told the servant to carry the box to the audience chamber, and going there with her keys, she unlocked the chest before the king.

Out stepped the handsome young man, to everybody’s astonishment.

‘Who are you? asked the king, ‘and where is my jewel?’

‘I am Ruby Prince’ replied the boy; ‘more than that you cannot know.’

Then the king was angry, and drove him from the palace, but, being a just man, he first gave the boy a horse and weapons, so that he might fight his way in the world.

Now, as Prince Ruby journeyed on his horse, he came to the outskirts of the town, and saw an old woman making bread, and as she mixed the flour she laughed, and as she kneaded it she cried.

‘Why do you laugh and cry, mother?’ said Prince Ruby.

‘Because my son must die today.’ replied the woman.’ There is an ogre in this town, which every day eats a young man. It is my son’s turn to provide the dinner, and that is why I weep.’

Then Prince Ruby laughed at her fears, and said he would kill the ogre and set the town free. Only the old woman must let him sleep a while in her house, and promise to wake him when the time came to go and meet the ogre.

‘What good will that do to me?’ said the old woman, ‘you will only be killed, and then my son will have to go tomorrow. Sleep on, stranger, if you like, but I will not wake you!’

Then Prince Ruby laughed again. ‘It is of no use, mother!’ he said, I will ‘fight the ogre and as you will not wake me I must go to the place of meeting and sleep there.’

So he rode off on his horse beyond the gates of the city, and, tying his horse to a tree he lay down to sleep peacefully. Later the ogre came for its dinner, but hearing no noise, and seeing no one, it thought the townspeople had failed in their bargain, and prepared to revenge itself. But Ruby Prince jumped up, refreshed by sleep, and falling on the ogre, cut off its head and hands. These he stuck on the gate of the town, and returning to the old woman’s house, told her he had killed the ogre, and lay down to sleep again.

Now when the townspeople saw the ogre’s head and hands peering over the city gate, they thought the dreadful creature had come to revenge itself. Therefore they ran to the king in a great fright, and he, thinking the old woman, whose son was to have been the ogre’s dinner, must have played some trick, went with his officers to the place where she lived, and found her laughing and singing.

‘Why do you laugh?’ he asked sternly.

‘I laugh because the ogre is killed!’ she replied, ‘and because the prince who killed it is sleeping in my house.’

Great was the astonishment at these words, yet, sure enough, when they came to look more closely, they saw that the ogre’s head and hands were those of a dead thing.

Then the king said, ‘Show me this brave prince who sleeps so soundly.’

And when he saw the handsome young man, he recognized him as the lad whom he had driven from the palace. Then he turned to his prime minister, and said, ‘What reward should this youth have?’

The prime minister answered at once, ‘Your daughter in marriage, and half your kingdom, is not too high a reward for the service he has given!’

So Ruby Prince was married to the king’s fair daughter, and half the kingdom was given him to rule.

But the young bride, much as she loved her brave husband, was troubled because she did not know who he was, and because the other women in the palace laughed at her for having married a stranger, a man come from No-man’s-land.

So, day after day, she would ask her husband to tell her who he was and where he came from, and every day Ruby Prince would reply, ‘Dear heart, ask me anything but that, for that you must not know!’

Yet still the princess begged, and prayed, and wept, and coaxed, until one day, when they were standing by the river side, she whispered, ‘If you love me, tell me what race you are!’

Now Ruby Prince’s foot touched the water as he replied, ‘Dear heart, anything but that, for that you must not know!’

Still the princess, imagining she saw signs of yielding in his face, said again, ‘If you love me, tell me of what race you are!’

Then Ruby Prince stood knee-deep in the water, and his face was sad as he replied, ‘Dear heart, anything but that, for that you must not know!’

Once again the stubborn bride put her question, and Ruby Prince was waist-deep in the stream.

‘Dear heart, anything but that!’

‘Tell me! Tell me!’ cried the princess, and, lo! As she spoke, a jeweled snake with a golden crown and ruby star reared itself from the water, and with a sorrowful look towards her, disappeared beneath the wave.

Then the princess went home and wept bitterly, cursing her own curiosity, which had driven away her handsome, brave young husband. She offered a reward of gold to anyone who would bring her any information about him. Yet day after day passed, and still no news came, so that the princess grew pale with weeping. At last a dancing-woman, came to the princess, and said, ‘Last night I saw a strange thing. When I was out gathering sticks, I lay down to rest under a tree, and fell asleep. When I awoke it was light, neither daylight nor moonlight; and while I wondered, a sweeper came out from a snake-hole at the foot of the tree, and swept the ground with his broom; then followed a water-carrier, who sprinkled the ground with water; and after that two carpet-bearers, who spread costly rugs, and then disappeared. Even as I wondered what these preparations meant, I heard music, and from the snake-hole came a grand procession of young men, glittering with jewels, and one in the middle, who seemed to be the king. Then, while the musicians played, one by one the young men rose and danced before the king. But one, who wore a red star on his forehead, danced but looked ill. That is all I have to say.’

So the next night the princess went with the dancing-girl to the tree, where, hiding themselves behind the trunk, they waited to see what might happen.

Sure enough, after a while it became light that was neither sunlight nor moonlight. Then the sweeper came out and swept the ground, the water-carrier sprinkled it, the carpet-bearers placed the rugs, and last of all, to the sound of music the glittering procession swept out. How the princess’s heart beat when, in the young prince with the red star, she recognized her dearest husband; and how it ached when she saw how pale he was, and how little he seemed to care to dance.

Then, when all had performed before the king, the light went out, and the princess crept home. Every night she would go to the tree and watch, but all day she would weep, because she seemed no nearer getting back her lover.

At last, one day, the dancing-girl said to her, ‘Princess, I have a plan. The Snake-king is passionately fond of dancing, and yet it is only men who dance before him. Now, if a woman were to do so, who knows but he might be so pleased that he would grant her anything she asked? Let me try!’

‘No,’ replied the princess, ‘I will learn from you and try myself.’

So the princess learnt to dance, and in an incredibly short time she far surpassed her teacher. Never before or since was such a graceful, charming, elegant dancer seen. Everything about her was perfection. Then she dressed herself in finest garments and silver brocades, with diamonds on her veil, till she shone and sparkled like a star.

With beating heart she hid behind the tree and waited. The sweeper, the water-carrier, the carpet-bearers, came out in turn, and then the glittering procession. Ruby Prince looked paler and sadder than ever, and when his turn came to dance, he hesitated, as if sick at heart; but from behind the tree stepped a veiled woman, wearing white, with jewels flashing, and danced before the king. Never was there such a dance!—everybody held their breath till it was done, and then the king cried aloud, ‘Oh unknown dancer, ask what you will, and it shall be yours!’

‘Give me the man for whom I danced!’ replied the princess.

The Snake-king looked very fierce, and his eyes glittered, as he said, ‘You have asked something you have no right to ask, and I would kill you were it not for my promise. Take him, and go!’

Quick as thought, the princess seized Ruby Prince by the hand, dragged him beyond the circle, and fled.

After that they lived very happily, and though the women still laughed at her, the princess held her tongue, and never again asked her husband of what race he came.